Sunday, 1 May 2011

Book Review: The Bicycle Book. By Bella Bathhurst. Harper Press; 306 pages; £16.99

Bella Bathhurst
A few months back I confused this book with one by Helen Pidd, the girl with the Velorbis Victoria Balloon (a bike I'd love to own), but now I've spotted a review of Bathhurst's book in The Economist.

I didn't know that there were more than a billion bicycles in the world, which is over twice the number of cars or that the bike has 'regularly proven to be the fastest form of urban transport, reaching its destination more quickly than cars, buses, tubes or pedestrians'. Something, perhaps, for London Mayor Boris Johnson to bear in mind.

Bathhurst, says The Economist, made her name writing about lighthouses built by the ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson and her new book – on bicycles – 'affirms her as an elegant chronicler of quirky subjects'.

BBC Four recently screened a programme based on her book about the Lighthouse Stevensons, which was excellent and she writes for the Guardian too.

When I get some money – I'm virtually unemployed at present – I'm definitely going to buy this book as it is claimed to appeal to cycling nuts as well as those who simply possess a bike that is sitting in the garage doing nothing. I'm somewhere in the middle, although I guess with this blog you all think I'm a cycling nut. I suppose I am on some level, but I'd call myself a weekend cyclist. I wonder if Bella Bathhurst rides a bike?

Don't worry, Bathurst's book is not devoted to the environmental debate. Instead it offers other stuff, interesting facts like Evans Cycles selling four times as many bikes as usual on the day of the London tube bombings. Did you know that bicycle couriers started life in 1874 or that, up until 2004, the Swiss army had three regiments of cyclists working in security, border control and dispatch?

Then there's the story of Zetta Hills who cycled across the English Channel with her bike mounted on two planks. What about Vinod Punmiya, the Indian businessman who raced against a train, the Decan Queen, between Pune and Mumbai (140km). And who can forget cycling legend Graeme Obree, known as the Flying Scotsman, who cycled to beat depression and broke the hour record – apparently the ultimate time trial – twice.

Obree's philosophy of life boiled down to being about 'you and the bike' – and that, as any cyclist will know, is what it's all about.

A long one to Longford Lake...and the footpath to Dunton Green!

Andy, yours truly and Richard, Saturday 30 April 2011.
Andy and I have been cycling for almost five years now; that's five years of virtually every weekend since August 2006, making our way out to our favourite destinations. In all that time, we've often promised ourselves a later run and a drink or two in a decent pub at the end of the journey. The venue for such an adventure had always been Longford Lake in Chipstead, Kent, and the day finally came yesterday (Sunday 1 May 2011).

Our pal Richard drove up to Andy's from Maidstone in Kent and we met, at 10am, on Warlingham Green. The weather has been amazing over the past few weeks – some say the hottest April on record – and May Day was no exception to the rule. I had dispensed with my rust-coloured jacket (it's much warmer outside at 10am than it is at 7am) and Andy had his shorts back on (and so did Richard).

We set off on time for Longford Lake, but the plan was to attempt the once notorious 'Footpath to Dunton Green', a dirt track skirting the lake and eventually leading to Dunton Green (check out the link at the end of this post for further details).

The run was simple: we headed along the Limpsfield Road towards Botley Hill Farm, then turned left on to Clarks Lane towards Westerham and passing the Tatsfield Bus Stop. We cut through 'the off-road bit' near the golf course in Tatsfield, emerging on a main road and hanging a right, down towards Pilgrims Lane, following our usual route through to Chipstead Village.

But then we went 'off road', following the narrow dirt track around the lake, which eventually opened out into fields and onwards to Dunton Green. Then it was a case of following the road round and back towards Chevening, hanging a left towards Chipstead, riding over the motorway – and straight to the pub, the excellent Bricklayers Arms, which sells beer from Harvey's of Lewes.

40 miles of cycling, three pints of Harvey's and it's time for a well-deserved kip!
The weather being absolutely wonderful, like the perfect summer day, we sat outside on the grass, the lake in front of us, watching the sailing dinghies. Andy and I ordered a couple of pints of Harvey's Royal Wedding beer, which was called something like Royal Nuptial Ale, and Richard chose a pint of 1664. We sat outside chatting about this and that, forgetting about the hot sun and the fact that the Nuptial Ale, unknown to us, was 6 per cent abv, quite strong for a real ale.

Okay, put it this way, Harvey's Royal Nuptial Ale is absolutely amazing. So amazing that we ordered another two each – and a few plates of excellent chips too (they were so good we didn't bother putting ketchup on them). Anyway, add the beer, the sun and the chips together and you get three sunburnt cyclists who then had to cycle the best part of 20 miles home. We'd reached the pub and worked out, using Andy and Richard's cycling apps, that we'd cycled 18 miles, which meant we'd be cycling a similar distance home – only now we'd enjoyed three pints of strong ale.

Halfway along the Pilgrim's Lane and Andy disappeared into a hedge. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt, but when he reached home, the sun having worked its magic, Andy was feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He sent me a text aborting our Sunday (2 May) cycle and, to be honest, I was considering a similar text. My arms were pretty burnt and I was knackered. A Sunday without a cycle seemed like a good idea, and besides, I needed a rest.

As I write, my forearms are still a deep red colour and my face ain't far off either, but I'm not in pain. Andy, on the other hand, is in pain and I'd put that down to Andy being fair and me being dark. Don't get me wrong, I can suffer badly from the sun, but only if I sit down on a lounger and try for a tan or wander around in swimming trunks on the beaches of Spain or Italy. To be honest, now that the sun has been proved dangerous, I keep well out of it; I've never liked sunbathing. My dad used to try and get me to sit in the hot sun when I was in my teens. He used to sit out there in the back garden baking in the hot sun under the mistaken impression that it was doing him some good: it wasn't.

But putting sunburn aside, what a great day on the bikes! I think we should have ordered weaker beer, like Harvey's Sussex Ale, but we didn't. I know it's possible to be drunk in charge of a pushbike, but I'm not sure if you get banned for it; had we been stopped by the police I think we'd have been done. Fortunately, the quiet country lanes of Kent kept us hidden from most of society and we rarely came across a car, not until we were back on Clarks Lane and heading towards the Botley Hill.

Andy and Richard said goodbye at Warlingham Green and I reached home at some time gone 4pm. It had been a long day and I was knackered.